war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Ukraine launches war crimes probe after Russians use Ukrainian POWs as human shields

Halya Coynash
Russia has systematically used Ukrainians as human shields since its invasion of Crimea in 2022, with all such behaviour identified by the International Criminal Court as a war crime

Drone footage as posted by Radio Svoboda showing the Ukrainian POWs apparently used as human shields by Russian military

Drone footage as posted by Radio Svoboda showing the Ukrainian POWs apparently used as human shields by Russian military

Ukraine’s Prosecutor General has launched a criminal investigation after drone footage emerged that appears to show Russian soldiers carrying out an attack, using Ukrainian prisoners of war as human shields.  It is prohibited in international law to use either prisoners of war [POW] or civilians as human shields, with the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court classifying such behaviour as a war crime.  All such crimes need to be fully documented and perpetrators identified, however they are, unfortunately, nothing new.  Back in October 2023, the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, condemned a number of war crimes committed by the Russian forces in Ukraine, with these including the use of civilians as human shields.

Ukrainian drone footage first appeared on the Internet at the end of November, with this verified and then published by Radio Svoboda, the Ukrainian Service of RFE/RL.  The report explains that the Russian army was trying to regain its position near the village of Robotyne (Zaporizhzhia oblast) which the Ukrainian Armed Forces liberated in August 2023. On the drone footage, you see what appears to be Russian soldiers trying to attack Ukrainian positions, with the Russian unit pushing three Ukrainian POWs ahead, while firing from behind them.   Radio Svoboda has established the location but is complying with a request from the Ukrainian military to not provide the exact coordinates.  It has, however, been able to confirm that Russian military from the 76th Guards Air Assault Division are active in this direction.  That division is part of Russia’s notorious 234th Guards Air Assault Regiment which took part in the invasion of Crimea in 2014 and is suspected of war crimes in Bucha in 2022. 

The Prosecutor General’s report on 14 December said that a criminal investigation had been initiated under Article 438 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code (violation of the laws and practice of war.) 

The use of prisoners of war as human shields is prohibited by the Third Geneva Convention, with the Fourth Geneva Convention and its Additional Protocol covering the prohibition of such actions with respect to civilians.  The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court states that “utilizing the presence of a civilian or other protected person to render certain points, areas or military forces immune from military operations” constitutes a war crime in international armed conflicts. 

Russia’s use of civilians as human shields dates back to 2014

Ukrainian human rights groups and the Crimean Prosecutor informed the International Criminal Court back in February 2019 about Russia’s use of the civilian population as human shields during its invasion and annexation of Crimea.  The report cited cases where Russian forces had deliberately placed civilians near Ukrainian military objects, hiding behind them during the blocking or seizure of such objects to prevent Ukrainian soldiers opening fire against attack (more details here).

There was plenty of evidence of similar use of civilians as human shields in occupied parts of Donbas.  Russia’s attempts to present the conflict then as a ‘Ukrainian civil war’ were, even before its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, demonstrated to be false, by the Joint Investigation Team investigating the downing by a Russian BUK missile of Malaysian airliner MH17 and by the Russian fighters themselves.

In early 2014, women in Kramatorsk even tried to force the fighters to leave their streets and stop using women and children as human shields. 

Numerous Russian or Russian-controlled fighters have, over the years, admitted that everything was run by Moscow.  Igor Girkin, the former FSB officer, who led the Donbas assault, after taking part in the invasion of Crimea, has acknowledged both Russia’s involvement and his use of civilians as human shields.

Since 2022, there have been repeated occasions where the Russian military used civilians as human shields.  During Russia’s retreat from Kherson on the right bank of the Dnipro, the invaders forcibly removed civilians, together with their armed forces, with this a clear ploy to use the civilians as cover for their soldiers.

In its October report, the International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine “found that in several cases, Russian armed forces appear to have deliberately positioned their troops or equipment in residential areas or near civilians to reduce the likelihood of attacks. Russian armed forces also forced civilians to remain inside or in proximity of their positions, exposing them to significant risk. “

One example provided was from the Yahidne village in Chernihiv oblast where the Russians confined 365 civilians in the basement of a school which they themselves used both as headquarters, and as a site from which to launch attacks on Ukrainian positions.

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